The Libyan capital prepared Saturday to bury its dead after 32 people were killed and almost 400 wounded when a residents’ revolt against militia rule degenerated into armed clashes.
After blasts and gunfire rocked several areas throughout the night, a relative calm returned to Tripoli in the morning with only sporadic Kalashnikov fire in the Ghargour district where the violence flared.
The militia at the center of the bloodshed received reinforcements during the night from its home base in Misrata, 200 kilometers away, and recovered its headquarters in Ghargour.
Military police filtered access to the district on Saturday, warning motorists of the risks of gunfire. Witnesses said shots were being fired to welcome the reinforcements rather than in anger.
“The latest toll from the health ministry’s coordination cell is 32 dead and 391 wounded,” said the ministry’s information office chief, Amar Mohamed Amar.
The government called for a ceasefire after a demonstration calling for the Misrata militia made up of former rebel fighters to leave the capital turned into a deadly confrontation between rival gunmen.
The militias are holdovers from the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi and are a powerful force in the increasingly lawless North African country.
The violence erupted when gunmen fired at hundreds of marchers carrying white flags from inside villas serving as their headquarters in the southern district of Gharghour.
That sparked violent retaliation as other militias assaulted the villas, set them partly on fire and expelled the Misrata fighters. It was unclear how many died in the demonstration and how many in the assault.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said at first that armed demonstrators were involved in the clashes and the security forces had not intervened “so as not to complicate the situation.”
But he later backtracked to say the protest march had been “peaceful and came under fire when it entered Gharghour.”
Zeidan, who was abducted briefly by armed men in October, last week called on Libyans to rebel against militias. “The people must take to the streets … and support the building up of the army and police,” he said.
Sadat al-Badri, president of Tripoli city council which had called for Friday’s protest, insisted the demonstrators were unarmed. They were shot at from inside the militia headquarters, he said.
In sermons at midday Muslim prayers on Friday, imams backed the call to protest against militias.
The protesters, among them children, marched to the Misrata militia headquarters to press their demands when gunmen inside initially fired into the air to scare them off.
When the crowd continued to approach the building, the gunmen started firing at them, an AFP correspondent reported. A rocket also crashed into the main road near the demonstrators, without causing casualties.
A leader of the militia from Misrata, Libya’s third city and scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the 2011 revolt, told private television al-Naba that demonstrators had opened fire first.
The march was sparked by violence on November 7 in which the Misrata militia also played a central role and which terrorized Tripoli residents and illustrated again growing instability in Libya.
The rebels who overthrew Gaddafi were hailed as heroes for bringing an end to more than four decades of dictatorship but have since carved their own fiefdoms posing a constant threat to stability.
Residents of Tripoli frequently demonstrate against the militias, who have rejected government demands to turn in their weapons or join the national security forces.
The violence in Tripoli came as the US State Department revealed it has been quietly offering a $10 million reward to help track down militants behind a deadly attack on the US mission in Libya’s second city Benghazi last year.
The eastern city is also prey to feuding militias and there have been frequent attacks on security personnel and other officials who served under the Gaddafi regime as well as on Western targets.
The brazen September 2012 assault on the US consulate cost the lives of four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens.